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Side Order: The Reagan Presidential Libary and Museum gets a $15 million overhaul

By Kelly DiNardo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 6, 2011; F03

The mission-style building that houses the recently renovated Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif., perches atop a bluff with spectacular views that conjure up the dozens of Westerns that Reagan the actor shot on location. But what's most in keeping with the 40th president's first career can be found inside: elaborate interactive programming that brings the Gipper to life.

The library first opened in November 1991, nearly three years after Reagan left office. After almost 20 years, it resembled a collection you'd have dug out of "Grandma's attic," as I recently overheard one worker describe it.

That description no longer applies. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation has orchestrated a $15 million renovation to be unveiled in a private ceremony as part of Reagan's 100th birthday celebration Sunday. It will open to the public Monday.

Several weeks ago, as electricians still tinkered, I previewed the museum with Rob Bauer, director of external affairs. The exhibits still trace Reagan's life from his childhood to his years as a lifeguard through his careers as a sports announcer, actor, governor of California and president.

Bauer, who is clearly a fan, is an excellent tour guide. He points out which artifacts are new, such as the navy suit that Reagan wore during the 1981 attempt on his life, which has never been on display.

He shares anecdotes about the exhibits: When the museum was under construction, for instance, Reagan told the builders that the ceiling in the Oval Office replica was too low. When told that it couldn't be raised for structural reasons, the president replied: "Dig."

With all due respect to Bauer, however, the true charmer is his partner on our tour: an iPod Touch. In addition to 180 video screens, two teleprompters and a green screen, the museum now features 250 of the patent-pending devices to lead you through the displays.

The iPod Touch provides the audio tour, giving background at specifically designated spots. More interestingly, it allows me to take photos and video as I wander through the museum.

I snap a few photos of ribbons that Reagan won during a swim meet and of the Notre Dame sweater he wore in "Knute Rockne All American" before I pause for my Hollywood moment. Beyond the iPod Touches, the renovation features a plethora of technological upgrades, including a green screen that allows visitors to host GE Theater a la Reagan or insert themselves into "Knute" as his co-star.

After my stilted acting debut, I make my way through galleries on Reagan the governor, listening to clips from a campaign speech, to one about his presidential campaign and his first 70 days in office, to one on the assassination attempt.

Then Bauer, the iPod Touch and I arrive at an exhibit on life in the White House. We flip through a touch screen that shows Reagan's diaries both in his tight scrawl and transcribed. I shoot a video of Bauer searching the database by topic and date.

During Reagan's presidency, he and Nancy hosted 56 state dinners, and an interactive table lets guests design their own White House china, select flowers and take an etiquette quiz to see if they have what it takes to attend a state dinner. Armed with my iPod Touch, I film Bauer as he creates a floral display with hydrangeas that are then reflected into the center of the table.

We make our way through various galleries on Reagan policies - which include a table with six large iPad-like devices that feature educational games - through an exhibit on ranch life and finally to one on his death and funeral.

I finish the tour, thank Bauer and return the iPod Touch. But it's not over. Within hours, I have an e-mail from the museum with a link to a Web page housing my personal media library of all the pictures and videos I took on my visit. From here, I can download my tour or share it through Facebook and Twitter. An endless encore for my trip.

DiNardo is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is www.kellydinardo.com.

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